From its humble origins on BBC Two in 1997 to its status today as one of the most revered documentary strands on television, ‘Storyville’ is recognized globally as a home for a wide range of documentaries, with strong narrative and imaginative approaches serving as underlying threads for its content. Since the strand’s inception, Nick Fraser has held the reins as series editor, and has steered the good ship ‘Storyville’ through both stormy seas (see the 2007 threat of a 60% budget cut that prompted a global outcry from docmakers) and smooth sailing (see the numerous doc renaissances that have sprouted up during its history).
Granted, it’s not the rosiest of times for the Beeb, with the recent deal struck between director general Mark Thompson and the UK government resulting in a six-year freeze of the BBC’s license fee. But Fraser is optimistic that ‘Storyville’ is safe from the chopping block, at least for the time being.
“I’ve been told it has a future in the new, leaner BBC,” he says. “The dilemma for the BBC is how to get through these cuts with something really good left on the other side, but I think it’s possible. I wouldn’t be depressed about it. You have to be very positive about what it is you do want to do, and what you don’t want to do. What the BBC does best in the eyes of the rest of the world is factual programming, documentaries, and news. These things are incredibly valuable.”
He remains committed to supporting and seeking out films that attack their topics with a sense of adventure, while avoiding preachiness or polemic. He points to the scope of ‘Storyville’-supported films on the roster at Sundance this year, ranging from the political bio Reagan to Project Nim, James Marsh’s look at the life of a chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky, taught to communicate with language and raised as a human child.
“We should get happier and wackier as we get older,” he says of the strand. “We should lift up our skirts and show more films about bare knuckle fist fighting among tribes of Irish travelers. We should have mad and crazy films.”
If the unthinkable had happened and ‘Storyville’ did suffer fatal budget cuts back in 2007, what would you have done?
In another life I’d want to come back preferably not as a cockroach, but as a human rights lawyer. But as I’m a bit too old and you have a spend a lot of time becoming a lawyer, I probably would’ve just quit and written books. I feel deeply the desire to write books anyhow… you can make just enough money writing books if you’re diligent and very hard working and clever. I could probably just about do that.
You’ve said in the past that the BBC is a “risk-averse culture”…
Did I say that? (laughs)
I think the BBC toys with risk from time to time. It has to be responsive to a very broad taste. But it’s always been prepared to selectively take risks, some of them massive. I hope and pray that it will continue to think of that as part of its mission.